The Independent in the House of Assembly

Todays WomanThere is another interesting occurrence that came out of the recent no-confidence motion, which I believe warrants a “tack-back”. I have noticed the trend with former Prime Minister Owen Arthur’s deliveries in the House; and now the submission of Christ Church West Member of Parliament Maria Agard has solidified in my mind that Barbadian politics would be healthier with more Independents in the House.

Before the suspicions and accusations start to fly, let me remind my readership that I am a scholar by profession. One of my research areas is the political history of the Caribbean, which has several holes and significant missing pieces –– such as a complete biography or intellectual history of Tom Adams and the era which he led in our island.

This article is written with only my scholarly hat on, because I see some interesting areas of analysis.

Barbados is a small place, with smaller mentality at times; but I believe I will be sufficiently justified by history to offer my reflections here.

Maria Agard has escaped an entrenched system of party politics built on the supreme leader and the will of said supreme leader. The will of the supreme leader is buttressed by a complex system of campaign financing, which is unregulated.

The party whip, whose responsibility is to keep dissension to a minimum, maintain discipline and keep Members of Parliament under a specific party standards control, has his/her power augumented by the campaign finance might of the political leader.

For years, political leaders in the Caribbean have chosen weak candidates for the people of the various territories because the political whip works best on individuals who are willing to stay “in line”, and protect the will of the political leader in exchange for access to the bounty and favours it takes to court and win a constituency. A part of the unseen and mutually agreed quid pro quo is that Members of Parliament then do not embarrass the political leader or the financiers of the party.

This particular requirement leaves the member basically muzzled; not speaking against issues which may be pressing to the electorate. Moreover, although people within the party itself may not fully agree with not attacking a particular issue, they are also boxed in on the other side by the party politics that determines whether they survive or not.

Independent candidates dodge the party whip and are able to be fair and frank in their deliberations.

It is no surprise that Owen Arthur’s speeches in the recent past about the economy resonate with much of what we think and believe about the situation in Barbados. Maria Agard’s discourse on governance and how to create change within the political system of Barbados was useful.

Notwithstanding the usefulness, it is not lost on me how both Independent candidates became so. They both started their political careers entrenched in one of the two political party institutions operating in Barbados. In response to the question of if Barbados is ready to start electing Independent members directly to the house, I think the answer is a resounding no.

At the same time, we need more Independent policymakers and representatives to make the fundamental changes needed in Barbados. That presents the question: how do we get what we need within the current system which we have –– not only have, but guard as if it is the most functional, effective system and should never be altered?

I do not have an immediate and simple answer. One of the major components of any real change in the political system of Barbados has to be how Barbadians consume their politics. Thus far, we have not discussed the role of what we term the “political yardfowl” in the preservation of the party structure.

The leader of the political party is supported by faithful admirers who assist in securing the supreme will. These supporters are usually not known to be analytical, or willing to question the credence of any discussion or action that would be to the detriment their party’s position.

People are an important factor in the preservation of the power of the labour parties in the Caribbean. Therefore, movement of people power from under the political party structures can be a useful precursor in finding space for more Independent voices in the Houses of Parliament.

I believe that the people who have started “third party” structures in Barbados have recognized the need to see those Independent people in policymaking and governance; but they have missed the characteristic elements of Caribbean political party structures, which will always work against the changes in governance which we seek. A third party will result in no more Independent voices
in the House of Assembly.

Third parties will need the same things first and second parties require to survive. They will need financiers who will facilitate the running of campaigns serious enough to attract voters. They will need (blind) supporters to become the rank and file base of the party. Without regulation, it is possible we will see the perpetuation of the maximum leader as a feature of the political party.

All of these are hindrances to the Independence which we desire as a feature of a new type of governance in Barbados.

The solution to finding more Independent voices at the level of policy and governance in Barbados, to my mind, can be more effectively achieved with the introduction of strong lobby groups. This is a model that is reaping some success regionally.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there has been a chapter of Transparency International established, which has been responsible for some of the significant changes made over the last few years to the political and business climate in the twin-island state. This is not to say all is now pristine in Trinidad, but those living on the ground in the country feel a real change with respect to how some elements of politics are managed.   

There are no strong lobbies in Barbados. We have not mastered the art of moving a discussion past being a nine-day wonder to the point where it becomes the coagulant for a movement. How then do we expect Members of Parliament or political aspirants to “push out” on issues without the support to match, or at least challenge the onslaught of the traditional mass base of the existing political institutions?   

The two Independent voices which we have in the House of Assembly currently offer rays of what is needed as we begin to restructure a new type of governance for Barbados. However, it is not lost on me that both of the Independents in the House currently can be categorized as having fallen on their own political swords.

Being not naïve, I do not expect many more Independents any time soon.

(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.

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